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Gunn, James E

Entry updated 29 July 2023. Tagged: Author, Critic, Editor.

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(1923-2020) US author, critic and teacher, born in Kansas City and educated at the University of Kansas, where he worked and taught – ultimately as professor of English and journalism and Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, now the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction – from 1958 to 2010, and where he remained Professor Emeritus until his death. Throughout his academic career, he published considerable sf criticism, beginning with excerpts from his MA thesis in Dynamic Science Fiction (1953-1954) and continuing with the brief The Discovery of the Future: The Ways Science Fiction Developed (1975). More notable is a competent illustrated survey of sf, Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction (1975; rev 2018), although it inevitably suffers from excessive compression in its attempt at comprehensive coverage of later years, with many writers appearing only as names in paragraph-long lists; a slightly more ample coverage of Women SF Writers is included in the 2018 revision. Later, he edited The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1988), a shortish and film-dominated but alphabetical text which was not a new version of or otherwise connected with the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979) edited by Peter Nicholls; nor are the further editions of this Encyclopedia (1993; online 2011-current) connected to their near namesake. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction (1982), a loyal but convincingly couched study, won the Hugo award. Essays of interest were assembled as Inside Science Fiction: Essays on Fantastic Literature (coll 1992; exp 2006). For this critical work Gunn won the 1976 Pilgrim Award and the Thomas D Clareson Award in 1997. He served as President of Science Fiction Writers of America in 1971-1972, and as President of the Science Fiction Research Association in 1980-1982.

Gunn began publishing sf with "Communications" for Startling Stories in September 1949 as Edwin James (his middle and first names), switching to James Gunn in 1952 after ten stories. Most of his surprisingly numerous independent tales have been assembled in Future Imperfect (coll 1964), Breaking Point (coll 1972), Some Dreams Are Nightmares (coll 1974), The End of the Dreams: Three Short Novels About Space, Happiness, and Immortality (coll 1975) and Human Voices: Science Fiction Stories (coll 2002), but throughout his career, Gunn's favoured form was the short story or novelette adroitly assembled into Fixups. His collaborations were also central. His first two books were Space Operas. This Fortress World (1955) pits its protagonist against a repressive future Religion. Star Bridge (1955), with Jack Williamson, shows through a sometimes pixillated intricacy of plotting the mark of its senior collaborator's grasp of the nature of good space opera. Everyone, it turns out, is being manipulated, for the salvation of mankind, by an immortal Chinese with a parrot (see Godgame). Station in Space (coll of linked stories 1958) assembles several relatively uninteresting early tales about how Man is tricked into space exploration for his own good. The Joy Makers (fixup 1961) describes, in Gunn's dark, ponderous, cumulatively impressive manner, a society whose members are controlled by synthetic forms of release that corrode their sense of reality (see Perception). In The Immortals (fixup 1962), his best-known work, a mutation confers Immortality upon a group of people who become collectively known as Cartwrights; as their condition is transmissible to others by blood transfusion, they are forced underground by the understandable desire of mortal men to attain immortality. The hospital setting of the book adds verisimilitude. As The Immortal (1969), it became a made-for-tv series, which Gunn novelized as The Immortal (1970).

Two novels from 1972 – both woven into fixup form as was now Gunn's normal practice – demonstrated his quiet, cognitively alert, grasp of the world as conceived through sf means: The Burning (fixup 1972) is a Post-Holocaust vision of surviving humanity so saturated by technology that only Alien intervention (see Exogamy) can restore a sense of autonomy to the race; The Listeners (fixup 1972), makes productive use of its episodic structure in depicting the installation of an electronic SETI listening post to scan for radio messages from the stars, and the hundred-year wait that ensues. Gunn's sober, somewhat morose style (in his better moments he evokes a kind of sense of the melancholy that can underlie expressions of the Sense of Wonder) nicely underlines the complex institutional frustrations and rewards of this long search. Indeed, his forte seemed to lie in the narrative analysis of stress-ridden administrations and their administrators as they squirm under the challenge of the future; and his best work is usually set in organizations or among groups of people forced to cooperate. Perhaps typically of the work of his generation of sf writers, however, women (see Women in SF) tend to be excluded from the higher purposes of such organizations, and are sometimes depicted baulking at the sacrifices men must make to reach the stars. Nevertheless, Gunn made a considerable success of his chosen length and venue, and his later works – particularly Crisis! (fixup 1986) – ruminate absorbingly on the administration of humanity's problems to come, as does the much more recent Riley and Asha sequence comprising Transcendental (2013), Transgalactic (2016) and Transformation (2017), all three assembled as Transcendental: The Trilogy (omni 2020). Epic Space Opera topoi mix freely here with structural analogues to authors as remote as Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400); the Starship where much of the action takes place is specifically referred to as a Ship of Fools; the disruptive impact of an adolescent Homo sapiens upon a multi-species galactic civilization at rest is wryly noted.

Gunn's autobiography, Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction (2017), informatively transacts his personal and literary life, with a natural focus on his seventy years of active involvement in the field (see Longevity in Writers); it is a valuable document. For all his work as teacher, academic, encyclopedist and author he was given the SFWA Grand Master Award in 2007, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2015. [JC]

see also: Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Asimov's Science Fiction; Astronomy; Bibliographies; Communications; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Dystopias; Galactic Empires; Games and Sports; Genre SF; Golden Age of SF; John W Campbell Memorial Award; Leisure; Magic; Medicine; Psychology; Sociology; Utopias; Worldcon.

James Edwin Gunn

born Kansas City, Missouri: 12 July 1923

died Lawrence, Kansas: 23 December 2020



Star Trek

Riley and Asha

individual titles

collections and stories


works as editor


The Road to Science Fiction

Astounding Stories

individual titles as editor

about the author


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